We are all too familiar with the "death grip." Our fingers go white and are almost glued to the chanter with stress. The thumb on our lower hand develops a divot and an imprint of the high A hole is tattooed into the pad of the thumb on our upper hand.
The death grip can set in when we try to play beyond our means, perhaps at a tempo that is too fast.
We all dedicate a great deal of time to improving our technique but often we fail to improve our ability to relax. There is a certain amount of tension that is involved in playing any instrument and as pipers, we need to retain tension against the bag in order to produce an even tone. Within this framework, we need to be able to balance the need for tension with the need for relaxed fingers.
In this post, I will present a simple exercise that you can incorporate into your daily routine to help you to practice relaxing.
The exercise is straightforward.
- Pick an exercise or section of a tune.
- Pick a tempo at which you can play the exercise or tune in a relaxed fashion.
- Set a metronome at the desired tempo.
- Consciously relax the head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers.
- Play the exercise or tune at the desired tempo while doing your best to remain relaxed.
- Repeat steps 3 through 5 by increasing the tempo slightly.
For this exercise, I am using G-D-E triplets from low G to C. I've chosen this exercise because it uses three common, and important grace notes, the G grace note, the D grace note, and the E grace note. As I've noted, though, you can use any exercise—march, jig, reel—to practice relaxing. I recommend starting with a shorter exercise or section of a tune, however. Your muscles can tense up as you play a longer piece. If you learn to relax on shorter sections, you can then extend your relaxation to longer pieces.
Start by picking a tempo at which you can play the exercise in a relaxed manner. Let's assume that you can play the G-D-E triplets comfortably at 40 bpm. After you've picked a comfortable tempo, place your hands on the practice chanter. Make a conscious effort to relax your neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. Then play the exercise while maintaining your relaxed condition throughout the entire exercise.
When you've completed the exercise, increase the tempo. The amount by which you increase is up to you. A good starting point is to increase the tempo by four beats per minute. Then repeat the exercise making sure that your neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers remain relaxed. Continue increasing the tempo while attempting to remain relaxed. When you reach a point where your muscles stress and you can no longer play the exercise in a relaxed fashion, stop. Back the tempo off and repeat the exercise at relaxed tempo and call it a day, at least for this exercise.
It is important, when attempting to relax when practicing, that you execute the exercise cleanly, no crossing noises, keep things rhythmically accurate, while playing crisp gracenotes. If you fail in one of these areas, scale navigation, rhythmic accuracy, or gracenote quality, it is a sign that your muscles are tensing up and that you need to back off the tempo and relax again.
When you focus consciously on relaxing, you will develop the ability to play in a relaxed fashion on an unconscious level. Start with a tempo with which you are comfortable. Keep the piece short, then work up to relaxing by playing longer tunes.